Tennessee football: Vols defensive linemen have final chance to reach potential

BRISTOL, TN - SEPTEMBER 10: Teammates surround defensive lineman Shy Tuttle
BRISTOL, TN - SEPTEMBER 10: Teammates surround defensive lineman Shy Tuttle /

Some Tennessee football defensive linemen who were all elite recruits now enter their senior year with the Volunteers. Can they reach their potential?

In 2015, Tennessee football secured what many considered a historically great recruiting class on the defensive line. Butch Jones was still a popular name in Knoxville, and he brought in three defensive ends and three defensive tackles.

Of the ends, one was a five-star and two were four-stars. Of the tackles, one was a five-star, one was a four-star and one was a three-star.

The next year, 2016, Jones added two junior college defensive linemen: five-star end Jonathan Kongbo and four-star tackle Alexis Johnson. He also added another three-star end in Mykelle McDaniel. The unit should have been set for three years after that. It wasn’t.

Entering the 2018 season, the biggest star of all of these recruits, five-star tackle Kahlil McKenzie, is gone for the NFL. Both three-stars, McDaniel and Quay Picou, have transferred. One of the four-star ends from 2015, Andrew Butcher, suffered medical issues his entire time on campus and has now transferred to Kennesaw State.

Kongbo and Darrell Taylor, one of the four-star defensive ends from the 2015 class, are still both in the system but have moved to outside linebacker. So now, Jeremy Pruitt’s first year, that leaves three guys on the line: Johnson, defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, and defensive end Kyle Phillips.

All three are seniors. They have all been limited at times throughout their career, including two season-ending injuries for Tuttle and Phillips and legal issues plus nagging injuries for Johnson. Now, this year, under their third defensive line coach in three years and for Tuttle and Phillips their third defensive coordinator in four years, they are finally looking to reach their potential.

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Each one of these players has talked about finally reaching their hype. Phillips talked in the spring about redefining his college career and this year being his last chance to do so. Tuttle was honest at the start of fall camp about having a frustrating college career to this point. Johnson has never really even gotten the chance yet to show much.

We know about Jones misusing talent, so if any group of players deserves a chance to reach their hype, it’s these guys. It’s also true that Tuttle and Phillips, at least, have shown flashes of greatness for Tennessee football in the past.

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Now, with Pruitt and Kevin Sherrer installing their 3-4, they have a chance to be stars. Pruitt’s system calls for only one true defensive end and then two tackles up front. Phillips fits the end role. Johnson and Tuttle are both tackles. So it’s perfect.

These guys haven’t secured starting jobs outright yet. Phillips is the most safe, and Tuttle is likely second. Johnson will have work to do. But they have competition from guys like Emmit Gooden and Greg Emerson.

Still, things are looking up for them. It looks as if they are in control of their own situation right now. Nathanael Rutherford of Rocky Top Insider noted in Day 4 of Vols camp that those were the three best defensive linemen.

So now, even with the change in Tennessee football’s system, they can finally reach the hype they had two and three years ago. With Pruitt, Sherrer and Tracy Rocker working with them, fans have reason to have faith.

There’s even another twist here. Kongbo himself will line up at defensive end when the Vols use their 4-3 set. Jones’s misuse of him has also held him back a bit. So he joins the other three guys, whom he’ll sometimes line up next to, in hoping to finally reach his potential.

When Tennessee football got all these defensive linemen in 2015 and 2016, conventional wisdom said they would dominate the trenches. But injuries and poor coaching kept it from happening. The Vols are still having to live in the past with Derek Barnett up front at this time.

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But this year, with new coaching, a new system and a clean bill of health, the line can finally be as great as we once expected it to be. It still has quite a bit of talent. Everything depends on health and how quickly they pick up the scheme. If those two things happen, they will have strong finishes to their Tennessee football careers, albeit under new leadership.